Calculated transparency

When a secretive individual or organisation has become notorious one of the best PR defence strategies is some calculated transparency which seems to break down the secrecy while really only being a careful re-framing of reality.

The strategy has recently been adopted by Charles Koch, one of the brothers who head Koch Industries, a private company with annual turnover of $US115 billion. Charles Koch is estimated to be worth about $43 billion in his own right. The brothers are also major funders of ALEC, an industry group which seeks to get legislatures to pass extreme free market ideology bills it drafts for supportive legislators. High among their priorities is climate change denial activities and their talking points are regularly picked up by US politicians and sympathisers around the world such as Australia’s Maurice Newman. The Centre for Media Democracy has done much to expose the Koch brothers’ activities through its PR Watch website and its special Koch project.

Working with like-minded types, empowered by the US Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision which extends First Amendment rights to corporations and allows them to fund political campaigns in unlimited and largely secretive ways, Koch aims to mobilise about $900 million in campaign funds for selected candidates including for the Presidency. Their campaign organisation is currently about 350% bigger than the official Republican National Campaign.

There has been much speculation about which Republican the Koch brothers will support. Needless to say it won’t be a Democrat contender – particularly Bernie Sanders who has campaigned against Citizens United and the Kochs. Initially it was expected that it would be Scott Walker, the Wisconsin Government who has faithfully sought to implement much of their agenda. But Walker turned out to be a dud in the Presidential stakes and pulled out early.

Now Charles Koch has engaged in some calculated transparency through appearing in an interview in the Lunch with the FT series in the Weekend FT (9/10 January 2016). In the interview Koch confesses that he was urged to “get out and present who we are and what we stand for….We’re being attacked every day by blogs, other newspapers (they own some), media, people in government, and they were totally perverting what we do and why we do it.” Koch admits that they have had others (PR people and lobbyists) trying to counter the campaigns although now says “but I’m the evil guy so I need to come out and show who I am, like it or not.”

Needless to say he doesn’t quite say who he is although the lunch does take place in the Koch Industries Wichita Kansas cafeteria and he does show some useful PR skills. First, he points out that he has declined to endorse any Republican primary campaign candidate although the blog, along with others, suspects he will ultimately opt for Mark Rubio as the conservative most likely to be vaguely electable. Second, he tut tuts about the Trump and Cruz attacks on Muslims and skilfully quotes Mao to demonstrate the stupidity of their positions on carpet-bombing various Muslim countries. Third, he does push his strong view, paraphrased by interviewer Stephen Foley, that “there seems to be no issue to which smaller government, freer markets and unfettered competition is not the solution” and when you are sitting on a $43 billion fortune that probably seems perfectly logical. In the interview Koch also modestly confesses that, like any local pressure group, he has presented all the candidates with a list of issues the Kochs want on the agenda. “It doesn’t seem to faze them much. You’d think we could have some influence,” he says conveniently overlooking that all the Republican candidates are competing, in between the various claims about Mexicans and Muslims, to advance the tax and de-regulation policies the Kochs favour.

It’s easy to say that money has always been very important in US politics even if in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was mainly used in the form of outright bribes for voters just as it was in 18th and 19th century British politics. But the contemporary scale of funding, and the massive influence of the finance sector, is like nothing seen in democratic politics anywhere else in the world. The benefit to bankers of bail outs  (when we allow for inflation) easily exceeds the massive compensation the British gave to slave owners after slavery’s abolition.

To the outsider US politics is bizarre and frightening. The thought of any of the Republican candidates (other than perhaps Christie or Bush) having a finger on the trigger is indescribable. Equally bizarre are the belief systems of US politicians. The historian, Sir Lewis Namier, said of the History of Parliament project that: “A social history of England could be written in terms of the membership of the House of Commons.” That is no longer true of the Commons (or Australian Parliaments) where lawyers and political apparatchiks predominate. It is even less true of US politics where gerrymandered electorates produce elected officials who reflect the narrow, ignorant, racist and religious beliefs of the minority who nominate them for safe seats.

Most importantly propaganda displaces anger on what’s wrong with the US to Mexicans, gay marriage and Muslims. A new Pew Research Center study shows that one in five US adults live in poverty or close to it and that since the global financial crisis more than five million have joined the lowest income categories – many of them more concerned about god and guns than social equity. It is also difficult to underestimate the impact of religion and anti-scientific beliefs on government policies. For instance, Nicholas Matzke of ANU, based on work began at University of Tennessee, has traced the evolution of anti-evolution policies through a phylomemetic (the use of statistical phylogenetic analysis to study cultural transmission) analysis of the history of anti-evolution and anti-evolutionary legislation in the US from 2004 to 2016. His article (brought to the blog’s attention by John Spitzer) is in Science Magazine (1 January 2016 Vol 351 Issue 6268).  We can be astonished at the 17th century paradox of the scientific revolution existing side by side with superstition, epitomised perhaps by the fact that Kepler’s mother Katharina was suspected of witchcraft and was seized by officials  around about the same time as Harmony of the World was published. Yet the US has one of the most successful scientific research records in human history but a neurosurgeon Presidential candidate can confidently assert that the Egyptian pyramids were built by the biblical Joseph to store grain and, as Matzke shows, more and more State legislatures are passing anti-evolution teaching laws in between outlawing sharia law and the uttering or writing of the words climate change.

On top of all this you have a media which celebrates a culture of ignorant controversy, and which make the Australian News Corp publications look like Fourth Estate models. Constant scare campaigns (admittedly mimicked by media around the world) create moral panics in the lineage of the manufactured outrage which probably started with stories about suicides after the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther.  Although to be fair, of course, moral panics are not the exclusive preserve of US conservatives. Current US campus obsessions with ‘offensive’ speech, no-platforming, and ‘safe places’ may have had some initial validity but have now become part of the overall boorishness, rancour and lack of civility which characterises much US discourse.

Of course, we shouldn’t be too comfortable – it could happen here and, to a certain extent, is happening already.